Barrie McKenna, The Globe and Mail
April 21, 2009
WASHINGTON – A whispered assurance from a Barack Obama aide to Canadian diplomats that the future U.S. president would not rip up the North American free-trade agreement has proven prophetic.
Mr. Obama’s top trade official confirmed yesterday that Mr. Obama has no plans to reopen NAFTA to insert tough environmental and labour protections, which he publicly pledged to do during last year’s presidential race.
“The President has said we will look at all of our options, but I think they can be addressed without having to reopen the agreement,” U.S. Trade Representative Ronald Kirk told reporters.
Mr. Kirk made the comments after returning from the weekend Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, where Mr. Obama met privately with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
The three leaders “are all of the mind we should look for opportunities to strengthen NAFTA,” Mr. Kirk said.
During an embarrassing episode that came to known as “NAFTA-gate,” Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee reportedly assured Canadian diplomats that the then-candidate’s calls to overhaul NAFTA “should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans,” according to a Canadian government summary of the meeting.
Trade experts said it doesn’t come as big surprise that Mr. Obama would back away from that vow, made in the heat of a tough primary battle with Hillary Clinton.
Sidney Weintraub, a senior fellow at the Washington-based enter for Strategic and International Affairs, said Mr. Obama quickly realized that reopening the deal would lead to contentious negotiations that might spell the end of NAFTA.
“Canada and Mexico would want things, and he realized he could never get it through Congress,” Mr. Weintraub explained. “Unless there was prior agreement with Mexico and Canada, opening it would have killed the agreement.”
At the same time, the Obama administration’s recognition of the political reality of NAFTA doesn’t amount to a repudiation of protectionism.
Critics have accused the Democratic President of bowing to protectionist pressures in a number of recent actions, including the cancellation of a NAFTA-imposed program to open the U.S. market to Mexican trucks and the insertion of a Buy America clause in the government stimulus bill.
Mr. Obama has previously acknowledged that some of his campaign rhetoric on trade was “overheated and amplified.” Both he and former rival Hillary Clinton, now his Secretary of State, vowed to renegotiate NAFTA as they vied for votes from labour unions and other anti-free-trade groups.
Since the election, Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton have not talked about moving NAFTA’s side agreements on labour and the environment into the main part of the trade pact. Both provisions are weakly enforced.
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